From the land of Swiss cows to the land of Spanish puerco, we arrived in Madrid on the evening of the third day of our road trip from Switzerland. We were meeting up with Alicia, a friend who grew up in the city, and would be staying with her at her parents’ home for the next few days. She’d offered to personally escort us around for an insider’s scoop of her home town. If you’re planning your own trip, keep reading for a list of 15 of the best things to do in Madrid, how to get around, and other useful travel tips for this fabulous city.
If you happen to be driving to or in Madrid, it’s generally surprisingly easy to get around for such a large city. That being said, the public transportation is inexpensive and easy to use, so we recommend leaving your car at your lodging once you arrive and just taking the bus or train.
Make sure you have a good map app too. After inadvertently missing an exit on the Autopista M-30, we had to drive miles out of our way in the underground tunnel before we had an opportunity to exit and turn around.
We use Google Maps when we have WiFi, but usually when we’re traveling we don’t. In that case, we use the free map app called Maps.me. Just download your maps while you have WiFi. It’s usually either as good as Google Maps or better.
Map of the Best Things to Do in Madrid
After dropping off our bags and meeting Alicia’s parents, she offered to take us out and get started on seeing the sites. It was already early evening, but we were eager to explore. For the rest of the evening and the entire next day, she led us on a whirlwind tour of Madrid!
We caught a bus from her parent’s place to the downtown area. Once we arrived there, we visited all 15 attractions on foot.
The total distance is about 13 km, which is a bit much for one day. We spread it out over two days though, so it was a perfect way to see these sites and to really get a feel for the city.
1. Reina Sofía National Museum of Art
One of Madrid’s most renowned museums is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, often simply referred to as the Reina Sofía.
Primarily featuring Spanish artists, it has impressive collections from both Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí.
I’ve been a fan of Dalí since 1998 after visiting the Dalí Museum in Figueres where he lived his final days. The museum is very well organized with a detailed map of which room features each artist. This conveniently allows visitors to locate the art they most want to see and maximize their time at the museum.
Since Alicia knew the evening schedule for free entry, we breezed in without paying and headed for the Salvador Dalí room.
A painting I discovered and really liked was one called “Un mundo” by artist Àngeles Santos.
Measuring roughly 3×3 meters, the massive piece fills nearly an entire wall.
Completed in 1929, it reveals the world as a cube with spirit women playing instruments while another lights a stick from the sun to give birth to the stars.
Travel Tip: The museum is FREE on Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 6 – 8 pm. It’s also FREE Sundays from 1:30 – 2:15 pm.
2. Cervecería La Campana
When the museum closed, we realized we were starving. Alicia led us a few blocks to a little hole-in-the-wall place, Cervecería La Campana, where we filled up on deep-fried calamari sandwiches for just a couple bucks each.
Hallelujah for non-Swiss prices!!
This place is super popular in Madrid. It has a ton of good reviews on various online sites, but it’s cheap, tasty, and service is fast so you likely won’t have a wait.
Once your stomach is full, you’ll be grateful for a chance to walk off dinner and see more city sights!
3. Mercado de San Miguel
The Mercado de San Miguel, or San Miguel Market, is a popular covered gourmet tapas marketplace in Madrid.
Tourists love it, but locals frequent it too. Visitors can buy everything from legs of Iberian ham and seafood from Galicia to specialty cheeses from Basque Country.
It’s a great place to visit for either lunch or dinner. You can sample a variety of tapas with your choice of local beer or wine.
The Royal Theater is an opera house in Madrid that has been in use since 1850.
Not far from the Royal Palace, it can seat about 1800 and is one of the greatest opera houses in Europe.
7. Cervantes Monument & Plaza de España
The Cervantes Monument is right at the center of the Plaza de España. The monument rises above a long rectangular fountain with the city of Madrid as a backdrop.
A simple stone statue of Cervantes, the Spanish author who wrote Don Quixote, looks down on larger-than-life bronze sculptures of his book characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
8. Cerralbo Museum
The most unexpected surprise for us and one of my favorite attractions of the entire trip was the Cerralbo Museum.
The museum is home to the personal collections of Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa, the Marquis of Cerralbo. The site of the museum is the former home of the marquis, a Spanish archaeologist and insatiable collector of antiques who died in 1922.
Cerralbo offers a stunning variety of paintings, statues, clocks, lamps, and home furnishings that are absolutely packed into the lavish home.
Perhaps the most impressive collection is that of the lamps and light fixtures. The museum is filled with fanciful and colorful chandeliers, many of them made of Murano, or Venetian, glass.
If you’re looking for a quirky museum that’s a bit off the beaten path in Madrid, we highly recommend the Cerralbo Museum.
9. Templo de Debod
The Templo de Debod is a 2200-year-old Egyptian temple that originally was built near the Nile River.
The temple was gifted to Spain in gratitude for their assistance in saving several important ruins from flooding after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1968.
The temple was taken apart and rebuilt, stone by stone, in the Plaza de Oeste overlooking the city of Madrid and the Almudena Cathedral.
10. Pinchos at La Máquina on the Gran Vía
If you’re hungry by now, head for the Gran Vía, Madrid’s premiere shopping street. It’s packed with eateries, cafes, and restaurants.
For those in search of fabulous city views and traditional Spanish food, you might like La Máquina, a rooftop eatery overlooking the famous street and city skyline.
Madrid is known for their pinchos, which are little sandwiches similar to tapas. Named for the skewer (pincho in Spanish) that typically holds the ingredients together, they come in individual servings.
We selected a variety for the three of us to share. They were all delicious, from the ones with anchovies and another with a tasty truffle sauce to my favorite – tortilla española, a Spanish omelette with fried potatoes cooked in seasoned eggs.
Spanish food is sooooo good!
11. The Bear & The Strawberry Tree
One of the most popular areas of Madrid is a plaza called Puerta del Sol. In particular, visitors flock to see the 20-ton statue of El Oso y El Madroño, The Bear and the Strawberry Tree.
During medieval times, the area was home to vast forest of strawberry trees and bears that roamed the wilds. The statue is the symbol of Madrid, representing its fertile land and aristocracy.
Even if you’re visiting in the off-season, expect to wait in line if you want a photo of yourself with the famous bear.
12. Cybele Palace – Palacio de Cibeles
As you gradually work your way to the Museo del Prado, Madrid’s premier art museum, you’ll pass the Palacio de Cibeles, which used to be the old post office. It even still says Correos on the building, though it now houses City Hall.
Making our way past the metal detectors to see the inside, we sat awhile on their comfy couches, used the free restroom (always a surprise bonus in Europe), and filled up our water bottle.
There’s not much to see or do inside, but don’t miss the stained glass panels in the building’s ceiling.
13. Prado Museum
Another of the best things to do in Madrid is to visit the Prado Museum, which has the largest collection of Spanish paintings in the world.
Neither Trav nor I have ever been a fan of old, dark, religious paintings. We have little interest in scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus, chubby cherubs, and obscure religious figures. Surprisingly, we both discovered quite a few paintings at El Prado that we really liked. Particularly memorable were those by artists like Francisco Pradillo that date from the 19th century and reflect historical realism.
Unfortunately we can’t share any photos from the museum since we weren’t allowed to take any.
Travel Tip: Take note that the museum has banned all photography and not just flash photography.
The museum is a popular attraction, so expect to stand in line for tickets, or buy them online in advance. The museum offers days and times with free entry, usually Sundays. Check the link at the bottom of our post for the Prado Museum before you visit.
Ironically, the museum was hosting a visiting Picasso exhibit from the Kuntsmuseum in Basel during our visit. We wouldn’t drive the two hours from our house in Switzerland to see it in Basel, let alone all the way to Madrid. I care not for Picasso, though I have to admit that his Guernica came to life with our friend Alicia’s insightful running commentary.
When you leave the Prado Museum, outdoor lovers will enjoy a lovely evening walk through the Parque del Retiro, or Retiro Park.
The Crystal Palace.
At times, the palace hosts exhibits, but during our visit the park was mostly empty.
We admired the glass and metal architecture of the palace from the outside, talked to the turtles in the pond for a spell, then continued on past the Plaza Maestro Villa with its beautiful statues and reflecting pool.
Right at the northwest corner of the Parque del Retiro is a giant roundabout with the monstrous Puerta de Alcalá at its center.
Completed in 1778, the monument is graced by statues representing the four cardinal virtues: temperance, justice, prudence, and courage.
It seemed fitting somehow that we should end our tour of Madrid at this particular piece of architecture. Once the gate of kings, steeped in history and moral integrity, it was a final memorable symbol of our short time in a truly vibrant city.
Though we just barely scratched the surface, we left content at how much we were able to see in less than two days – on foot, much of it free, and with the expert guidance of a knowledgeable local.
Huge thank you to our friend, Alicia, for sharing her beautiful city with us!
For less than 13 EUR, you can pick up a public transportation pass at most street kiosks. A single packet will likely be more than enough for several days in the city. They’re good on the city’s bus and Metro routes.
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10 Day Road Trip Map – Switzerland to Spain
We spent the evening of day three and day four in Madrid. The blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day road trip.